Everyone on the planet seems to be meditating right now, from Miranda Kerr and Gisele Bündchen to your roommates and work colleagues. Trendy downtown neighborhoods are filling up with meditation studios, and public parks are breeding grounds for mindfulness groups. Even the subway isn’t immune—last week I spotted a guy Zenning out on the F line. Mindfulness is the healthy buzzword du jour, but what if you just, well, can’t sit still? Enter active meditation, a practical way for non-meditators to get in on the mindfulness action.
In the interest of full disclosure, you should know I’ve been a smug meditator for about three years now. I did a week-long course, and $750 later, I walked out with a mantra having mastered the art of sitting perfectly still on a cushion without getting pins and needles in my butt. The benefits I’ve experienced—better sleep, a more positive attitude, increased energy, improved creativity—are well studied, but no matter how much I preach the virtues of my Zen hobby, some friends just won’t (or can’t) get into it. That’s where active meditation comes in.
Also known as dynamic meditation, this practice advocates movement rather than total stillness. It was created by Indian mystic and spiritual teacher Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who later became known as Osho, and like many meditation practices, has been adapted by modern teachers to encompass a wide range of activities.
Yoga and meditation expert, founder of I Am You studios, and author of the international best-selling book Retox, Lauren Imparato says that if you’re the type of person whose brain goes into overdrive when you try to clear your mind, this could be for you: “Instead of sitting and ‘being still’ or ‘stopping your thought,’ which, when you think about it, doesn’t really make sense, active mindfulness meditations are about training the muscle of the mind to be stronger,” she told me.
Oh, and don’t mistake active meditation as something less effective than the still-and-silent kind; what kills stress for one person might not work for another. Imparato explains: “The point of meditation is to make us stronger from the inside out. For some people, that is music or art ... or running—the point is to connect to your thoughts in a new way or from a different angle. You don’t have to sit still, cross-legged with your eyes closed to meditate—all you do have to do is breathe.”
Hooked already? Keep scrolling to learn two active meditation techniques.
1. Walking Meditation
Walking is probably the most common form of active meditation. Tibetan Buddhists are big on dynamic meditation because they believe that in order to be enlightened (or successful and happy) you need to practice “peace and joy in your steps.” The heel of the foot represents the past, the ball represents the future, and the middle of the foot is the life path—and this belief led them to create a walking meditation thousands of years ago. Imparato talks a lot about the practice in her book and has adapted and simplified the Buddhist ritual so that it’s easy to work into modern life—you can literally do it in as little as one minute.
To begin, Imparato says you simply stand up and get ready for a walk: “This can be a long, leisurely walk, a short jaunt to the water cooler, or even a part of your commute through the parking lot or subway platform.” Another favorite is simply exploring your neighborhood and wandering around. The key is to be present while you’re moving and to also adjust your breathing. “Before you go anywhere, notice your breath, and make sure it is through the nose,” she explains.
“Now start walking, coordinating your steps with your breath,” she told me. Inhale and step on the middle of your left foot asking yourself internally, What makes me happy? Exhale and step on the middle of your right foot saying, Go get it. Repeat the breath, the sayings, and the steps, and if your mind wanders, which it probably will, just bring your thought back to your stride. Imparato suggests doing this for “as long as you are able in your schedule,” to clear your mind of distractions and reduce stress.
2. Art Therapy
My introduction to art therapy came after a yoga class at Sky Ting Yoga in New York City. After savasana, we were given a sheet of paper with a large round circle in the center, watercolor paints, and brushes. “You have half an hour to paint whatever you like. Art therapy is about creating and self-expressing freely with no goal or judgment,” the teacher instructed. “You may talk to the person next to you if you like, but don’t speak about your art or what either of you is creating.” The circle, apparently, is called a mandala in Sanskrit and represents the universe in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism.
I didn’t really know anyone in the class, so I mostly kept to myself, letting my mind wander and do its own thing. Then, seemingly suddenly, the time was up, and I could hardly recall a single thing I’d thought about the past 30 minutes. The time flew past, and I’d been able to totally clear my mind with zero effort or intention.
Krissy Jones, co-founder of Sky Ting Yoga, says this kind of experience is common—especially for folks who can’t handle regular meditation. “If you’re struggling with seated meditation, try active meditation or yoga before sitting still, and see what happens for yourself.” She told me that the benefits of doing art therapy are pretty specific to the individual. For some people, art therapy is a way to “communicate ideas or feelings that you can’t put words to, or a mode to release an emotion that feels stagnant.” For others (me included), it’s a way to release stress and drop into a meditative state.
Either way, I loved it, and totally recommend you go and get yourself a paintbrush and some watercolors.
Up next, check out these five workout moves that will help relieve anxiety.